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In this photo from August 2017, Dr. Stephen Diamantoni, the county coroner, stands in the autopsy room at the Lancaster County Forensic Center. 

THE ISSUE

Lancaster County Judge Leonard G. Brown III upheld a state Office of Open Records ruling that coroners’ autopsy and toxicology reports are public records subject to disclosure under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law. In an order Friday, Brown said county Coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni must deposit, within 60 days, “all of his official records and papers” with the county prothonotary, where they would be available for public inspection. As LNP’s Tim Stuhldreher reported, the case stemmed from Right-to-Know requests filed by LNP and the Harrisburg news organization PennLive.

When journalists win battles for open records in court, the public wins, too.

LNP wasn’t seeking access to coroner’s reports out of some casual or ghoulish interest. It was so that LNP journalists can deliver more complete stories on issues that are important to Lancaster County residents.

In their brief to the court, attorneys for LNP Media Group and PA Media Group (PennLive’s parent company) explained that particularly now, with “opioid deaths being a major health issue for both the criminal justice and the healthcare systems of Lancaster County,” news organizations must be able to review the coroner’s records, so they can accurately convey the breadth and seriousness of the opioid epidemic.

The coroner’s records are “vital,” the attorneys noted, to the daily investigative reporting of LNP and PennLive journalists.

Lack of access to the coroner’s reports has “repeatedly hindered” the investigative work of those journalists into, for instance, deaths at Lancaster County Prison over the last several years. “Many of the deaths involved were of a sudden and unexplained and/or suspicious manner,” the attorneys noted. The coroner also investigates deaths that were “the result of criminal activity” — lack of access to the coroner’s records impeded the newsgathering into those deaths, too.

When LNP reporters have gone to the prothonotary’s office to see the coroner’s reports, all they’ve found are documents stating cause and manner of death — no toxicology reports, no autopsy reports, no related documents. Diamantoni has not filed those documents with the county prothonotary within 30 days of the end of each year, as required by state law.

“The words of the statute are unequivocal,” the attorneys for LNP Media Group and PA Media Group wrote. “The statute allows for no discretion as to which papers a coroner must deposit.”

Unfortunately, the instinct of those in power seems too often to slam file cabinets shut, to close meetings and doors, to seal off documents from the public.

The instinct — and the guiding principle — of journalists is to shine a light on that which those in power may seek to conceal.

As Robert M. Krasne, CEO of Steinman Communications and LNP’s publisher, put it: “LNP, as a community watchdog, strives to make the public aware of the significant activities in all corners of government to inform the public and serve the public interest.”

We are aided in that quest by the state’s Right-to-Know Law and by the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, the agency charged with enforcing that law. It’s not perfect, but when it was signed in 2008, it made this key improvement: State agencies “now have the burden to establish why a record should not be released. Previously, the burden was on a requester to establish why a record was public,” the website of the Office of Open Records explains.

Even with the law, however, some government officials resist transparency. Which is why some cases end up in court.

The county denied requests last year for the coroner’s 2017 autopsy and toxicology reports, but, in October, the Office of Open Records ruled those records are not exempt from disclosure. As Stuhldreher reported, that office “said the court system allows for records to be sealed in individual cases when confidentiality concerns warrant it.”

The coroner argued that disclosing the reports would reveal confidential data and violate privacy rights.

Judge Brown disagreed, noting that there’s no case law supporting a right to privacy for the deceased, and that while the deceased’s family members might be able to make the case for privacy, the coroner does not have the legal standing to do so.

Citing a 2009 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision, Brown said the coroner’s duty to forward records to the prothonotary for public inspection “is not discretionary but is obligatory.” And Brown said the coroner had no right to exert control over who inspects the records — he is not “the guardian of distribution” of those records once they are handed over, as the law requires, to the prothonotary.

We appreciate the judge’s ruling.

It can be uncomfortable for journalists to take on government agencies and offices, to risk access to officials by demanding they provide information they are required, by law, to make available. It can be expensive for a news organization, too, when a battle over records goes to court.

But some battles are too important to walk away from, especially when the cause is greater governmental transparency.